By Abdullah H. Erakat, The Media Line
ABU DIS – Hala Kanaan recalls her disappointment at being one year too young to cast a ballot in the 2006 Palestinian election. A school girl at the time, Hala remembers arguing with her mother and older sister, both of whom failed to exercise their right to vote despite her exhortations that, “women represent more than 50% of the population.”
In the end, Kanaan had it right even if she was unable to convince the other women in her family that the election was not “just a play” that is “decided before the election” as they argued, as the Bethlehem resident told The Media Line.
Today, Kanaan, who works as a project coordinator for the Diabetes Friends Society, is looking toward the next election – now in sight since the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation deal – and encouraging women that “elections are not exclusive to the men.”
Since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in 1994, two elections have taken place. In 2006, the Islamic movement Hamas won control of the parliament and the government, but this did not last for long. In 2007, Hamas forcibly took control of the Gaza Strip and the Palestinians became bifurcated: the West Bank controlled by Fatah and Hamas-ruled Gaza. That remained the situation until last month, when after seven years of division and two un-implemented reconciliation agreements, the two largest Palestinian parties struck a unity deal which calls for the formation of a technocrat government within days followed by presidential and parliamentary elections as early as December of this year.
Palestinian activist Shireen Mohammad Abu Helal says that while women are becoming more politically aware, they are not yet at the stage where they wish to be. She argues that by default, Palestinian women face a number of challenges, including, “suppression from the Israeli occupation; and suppression from the society that we live in.” Abu Helal told The Media Line that, “Those women who overcame these obstacles only did so because they took on the society,” asserting that Palestinians are very “emotional people.”
She explained that, “When it comes to the woman, she does not know who she wants to vote for. The husband is the one to tell her who to vote for. We faced this in 2006 with the legislative elections and we faced this in the 2012 local council elections, too.” Abu Helal believes that not all Palestinian women have reached full independence in their own lives.
Referring to the 2006 elections, she said, “I know women whose husbands threatened to divorce them if they didn’t vote for whom they wanted,” She says it was irrelevant that the woman might have had another opinion, blaming Arab society’s cultural and traditional norms.
In order to ensure a minimum participation by women in the parliament, Palestinian law requires that every party list must have at least one female among the first three candidates. Yet, Abu Helal says that, “with all that is happening today with women, I’m not optimistic that the [situation for women] will change.”
Twenty Palestinian women that have been killed this year alone, victims of honor killings, prompting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to announce plans to improve the enforcement of women’s rights.
For example, the present situation mirrors that of Jordan where the law demands that leniency be shown to defendants charged with committing crimes defined as “honor killings.” Whether Abbas changes the policy remains to be seen.
It’s this reason women such as Abu Helal believe that female participation in the electoral process is so crucial. Yet, others agree that it’s important for women’s voices to be heard, but are more optimistic in their reading of how far women have come. Amneh Qurei, a member of Fatah, argues that more awareness exists today among women. “Freedom of personality exists for the women, the knowledge among the women is more, and she knows who to vote for,” Qurei told The Media Line.
It is this belief, Kanaan says, that is the reason society is seeing more women in high places. “They have a very powerful influence in the present and in the future,” Kanaan said, adding that she thinks this time around her mother and sister will vote in this year’s elections.